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Adams, John Quincy


Source: Library of Congress(1)

            John Quincy Adams may have been the brightest president  of the United States history but he was not successful at it; instead, he was probably the best diplomat the United States has ever had and an ardent anti-slavery fighter. His upbringing was unusual for he not only was born into a prominent family but lived and was educated in several different countries as his father served the nation as its envoy in European capitals before becoming President of the United States.  John Quincy Adams was born July 11, 1767 in Braintree [now Quincy] , Massachusetts, the son of John  Adams, a remarkable leader in the American Revolution and  second president of the United States, and Abigail Adams, a remarkable woman who was bright and resilient. The Adams family raised John Quincy to lead, having him tutored and making sure that he knew important people from whom he could learn.  He was well educated, studying a classical curriculum and modern languages, but also studying diplomacy and what and why men acted as they did. He studied in Paris, Amsterdam, Leyden, and the Hague before returning to the United States where he studied at Harvard College, finishing in two years in 1787. Adams studied law for two years with Theophilus Parsons. Long before he became a lawyer, he had started working for the US government. His life was one of public service from the age of 14 until his death in 1848. Along the way he was a diplomat, Secretary of State, interpreter, President of the United States, state senator, US senator, and Member of the House.
          His was not the typical childhood even in elite families. His family criss-crossed the Atlantic Ocean in sailing ships when a one-way trip would take five weeks and was dangerous. They were as comfortable in the embassies and palaces of Europe as they were in Massachusetts. At age 10, in 1778, he accompanied his father to France and the Netherlands where he stayed until 1786, learning Dutch, German, and French. In 1781, at age 14, he served as translator and secretary to Francis Dana, US envoy to Russia. French was the language of diplomacy in  Europe, including Russia. In 1783, he returned to The Hague. His father had help negotiate the  Treaty of Paris (1783) ending the Revolutionary War and he was one of the witnesses to its signing. Then, in 1785, he moved to London where father was the US diplomatic representative. In 1786, he went home to Massachusetts to attend Harvard College.
          Although he enjoyed the practice of law, the challenge of politics soon led him back into government service. His father had become Vice President of the United States  in 1789, so he was never far from the family enterprise. When President George Washington issued his Neutrality Proclamation in 1793, trying to avoid participation in the Wars of the French Revolution in spite of European depredations on US shipping, many important people criticized him, including members of his own political party, the Federalists. John Quincy Adams supported Washington's decision in a series of articles written under the pseudonym, "Publicola." The articles were instrumental to  gaining support for Washington's decision. Before long, the President discovered who had written the articles and was so impressed with the ability of John Quincy Adams that he appointed diplomatic representative to the Netherlands. It was while he was visiting London in 1794 that he met Louisa Catherine Johnson, daughter of the US consul in London and an English woman. They were married  in 1797. His father, now president, sent him as diplomatic envoy to Prussia in 1797. A diarist, he found that he had plenty of time to write about the  French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars sweeping across northern Germany, for there was not much to do. They stayed until 1801 when they returned to Massachusetts.
          Rather quickly he was involved in Massachusetts and national politics while his wife had to adjust to the United States, her country of citizenship but in which she had not lived until then. Her husband was a public man even though devoted to his family. He accepted the call in 1802 and was elected to the state senate. The next year, 1803, the Massachusetts legislature elected him as US Senator. Adams tried to represent his state effectively but he was a nationalist and promoted the national interest. Whereas New England was opposed to the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, fearing, rightly, that it would diminish the power of the region and of conservatives, Adams voted in favor of ratification, the only New England senator to do so. He believed that the nation needed to expand. Many in the Massachusetts legislature were unhappy with his vote but his support of Thomas Jefferson's Embargo Act in 1807, which banned all US trade with Europe and threw New England into a depression. In 1808, the Massachusetts legislature elected a man to replace him two years before his term would end. Adams resigned.
            He re-entered a diplomatic career, one at which he excelled. From 1808 to 1813, he was Minister to Russia. In 1814, he headed the US delegation of Henry Clay, J. A. Bayard, Jonathan Russell, and Albert Gallatin, to negotiate a treaty with Great Britain to end the War of 1812. They got nothing that the US requested but won a victory only in that the US did not lose any territory. The British did not want French expansion on the continent which might result if the US was too weak. In other words, it got nothing for which it went to war. The Treaty of Ghent was signed in December, 1814. Adams said it was only a truce. President James Madison rewarded him by sending him as the US envoy to Great Britain, a post he held until James Monroe named him Secretary of State in 1817. This position was the stepping stone to the presidency.
          Adams enjoyed great success as Secretary of State, always supporting a national instead of a regional view. He wanted the US to be strong and to expand. He worked hard to accomplish those goals. In 1817, Spanish Florida was a source of trouble as  runaway slaves, outlaws, and Seminoles raided into the United States and then withdrew back into Spanish territory. Spain had few troops and they were stationed only in Pensacola, Saint Marks, and Saint Augustine, so Spain was unable to prevent these raids. US troops invaded Florida and killed some people in a Seminole village. The Seminoles retaliated by ambushing a US hospital ship and killing 42. General Andrew Jackson, believing that President Monroe had authorized it, conducted a  raid into Florida, occupying Saint Marks and Pensacola. He executed two British subjects. Britain and Spain protested strongly. Members of Monroe's Cabinet, with John C. Calhoun leading the pack, wanted Jackson punished. Adams, however, supported Jackson, arguing that he was justified. Adams argued to Spain and others that Spain was incapable of policing Florida and that it should yield the territory to the United States. Spain needed its resources to try to stop the wars of independence occurring in its New World colonies. After lengthy negotiations in which the US and Spain had to find a way for Spain to save face, the two signed the Adams-Onís Treaty [Transcontinental Treaty] in 1819. Spain gave Florida to the US; US agreed to assume debts from claims by US citizens against Spain. Thus, Spanish rulers could never be accused of selling national territory! Adams, on his own, got more. He got Spain to agree that the boundary between the Louisiana Territory and New Spain stretched all the way to the Pacific, going along the Sabine River, northwest to the 42nd parallel, and then to the Pacific Ocean. He then looked to Cuba, saying in 1822, that it was like a ripe apple soon to fall from the tree. 
          By 1823, the Spanish Empire in the New World was almost defunct as colony after colony rebelled against the conservative rule of the Bourbon kings of Spain. Ferdinand VII had been forced to adopt the Constitution of 1812, a liberal document which established a constitutional monarchy but he sought help from other conservative European powers to help him reconquer his Latin American colonies. Great Britain, which controlled the seas, wanted no competition in the New World. Weak, newly-independent Latin American nations would be more amenable to British trade. The British foreign secretary, George Canning, approached Adams with the proposition that both countries issue a proclamation to the Holy Alliance (France, Prussia, Austria, and Russia) that they not interfere in America. From Adams point of view, the issue was more complicated. Russia had already established a colonies on the North American continent in Alaska and around San Francisco Bay, which was in Mexico. Although the Russians had not entered US territory, Adams and other expansionists  hoped that US territory would expand to those areas and they did not want to face a European great power. So Adams had warned the Russians by 1822 that the US was opposed to its expansion onto the continent. As he considered Canning's proposal, Adams advised Monroe that the US should make an independent declaration for its interests and those of Britain were not exactly the same. Monroe agreed and in his December, 1823 State of the Union address made statements that are known as the Monroe Doctrine.
          Monroe stated that the political systems of the Old  World and New World were different and that each should stay out of each other's affairs.  He said that the US would not interfere with any existing European colony in the New World but the hemisphere was closed to further colonization. Few paid much attention to this nationalistic statement because they realized that the US could not enforce the doctrine or, as some wag out it, the doctrine was the American cock-boat in the wake of a British man of war. 
          When the presidential election of 1824 came, Adams was the logical choice, for the Secretary of State was traditionally selected to be president; Adams was but only after much controversy. By 1824, sectionalism had become the driving force in US politics as the country suffered from a national economic depression. Sections as well as the Congressional caucus, nominated  candidate. Adams represented New England and New York; Henry Clay represented the West; the war hero General Andrew Jackson was nominated by Pennsylvanians but his support was in the South and West. William Crawford was nominated by the  Congressional caucus but he had a stroke and was not a factor. No one got a majority in the Electoral College, where US presidents are actually elected. Andrew Jackson had gotten more popular votes and more electoral votes than anyone else but no majority. As the Constitution dictated, the election went to the House of Representatives with each state having one vote. Clay, as the fourth highest vote getter was excluded. As he considered the candidates, Crawford could not serve because of health and Adams' political views were closest to his. He supported Adams, who was then elected. Adams wanted a popular election so he would have a clear mandate but the Constitution made no provision for this so he agreed to serve the 1825-29 as President of the United States.
          His presidency was not successful for his opponents, particularly the Jacksonians, worked hard to make him fail. He did not help his friends, the emerging National Republicans, for he appointed people to office based on abilities not patronage. That meant he appointed political enemies as well. He named Henry Clay as Secretary of State, but the Jacksonians argued for four years that it was a "corrupt bargain," that Adams had sold the office and, thus the presidency in 1829-33 to Clay for his support. The Jacksonians argued that Adams was ignoring the will of the people and that, Andrew Jackson, was a man of the people. Jackson, of course, was an aristocrat from Tennessee, not a common man, but the spin worked.
            In first message to Congress, Adams argued for a national program to bind the country together by national funding for building national roads, canals, and harbor improvements, a proposition that the South opposed because it die not believe it would benefit. Adams wanted a stronger navy and the creation of military schools in addition to the US Military Academy at West Point. Adams argued that there should be a national university; he obviously wanted to have an elite with a common education. When  he suggested the ideas of  promoting the arts and sciences by funding scientific research and building an astronomical observatory, his detractors hooted. In 1828, he broke ground for the 185-mile Chesapeake & 0hio Canal.
             Adams wanted to accept the invitation issued in 1825 by Simón Bolívar to a hemispheric conference in Panamá City, Colombia [now in Panamá]. Congress finally approved it in 1826 but one delegate died on the way there and the other arrived after the meeting had adjourned.
In 1828, towards the end of his term, Congress passed and he signed the Tariff of Abominations which created high taxes on manufactured and raw material imports. The tariff was a political ploy by the Jacksonians who proposed it thinking that it would never get through Congress and Adams would get blamed for its defeat. But it did pass. New England supported it. Southern and Middle States also supported it in order to deprive Adams of a campaign issue. South Carolina Exposition and Protest, written anonymously by John C. Calhoun, protested and argued that a state could determine by itself if a act of Congress were constitutional
             That year, Andrew Jackson wins the presidency by a vote of 178-83. The popular vote was Jackson 647,231 to Adams' 509,097.(2) Adams, like his father did not stay for the inauguration. He was too bitter. He went home to Massachusetts to practice law, expecting to live out his life practicing law, reading, writing, and farming.
             In 1830, he was elected to the US House from Plymouth, Massachusetts. All other presidents have thought it would be beneath their dignity to become a "mere  Congressman"--if they could have gotten elected. He worked hard for 17 years for his district, state, and nation. In  1832, he helped formulate the compromise Tariff of 1832. In 1833, he tried to stop Jackson from moving money into the "pet banks." When Texas won its independence from Mexico in 1836, Adams opposed annexation of Texas for he feared it would mean more slavery. When the House adopted a "gag rule" to keep members from petitioning about slavery, Adams fought it, believing that members of Congress should have the right to discuss issue. In 1839, he tried to introduce resolutions that said that no one could be born a slave after 1845 in the US. Because of gag rule, it was immediately sent to committee, never to emerge. In 1841, he was the chief attorney before the US Supreme Court on behalf of the blacks prisoners who were charged with mutiny and murder when they had taken over the slave ship, the  Amistad. They had been illegally enslaved. His speech was eloquent. They were acquitted in 1842. Finally, in 1844, he managed to get the repeal of the gag rule. In 1846, he voted against going to war with Mexico because he thought President James K. Polk was acting illegally and trying to provoke a war with Mexico on behalf of the slave states. However, when it came to vote funds to pay for the war, he voted yes.
             He suffered a stroke in 1846 but was able to resume his seat in Congress. On February 21, 1848, he suffered another stroke. He died two days later. The life of one of the most accomplished statesmen in US history was snuffed out.

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1 memory.loc.gov/pnp/cph/3c10000/ 3c17000/3c17100/3c17119r.jpg

2 Popular votes were becoming more important because states had been removing property and religious qualifications to vote. By the time of this election, only South Carolina and Delaware chose electors by the state legislature. Still, only the Electoral College could elect a president.